An Ideal Husband

by Oscar Wilde

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How do social class and wealth shape characters' moral compasses in An Ideal Husband?

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In his play An Ideal Husband, Oscar Wilde portrays his contemporary England. It is possible to discern the author’s attitude to his society from the title of the play. We observe a seemingly ideal society.

However, as the plot develops, it becomes obvious that the “ideal” society is founded on lies and manipulation. The Chilterns and those who have come to their reception represent a microcosm of the English society. The head of the family turns out to be a swindler. Sir Robert has pulled off a shady deal that brought him fortune and a high government position. His marriage to Gertrude has helped him secure an image of an honest gentleman.

Wilde points out that moral degradation has affected not only men but also women. Mrs. Cheveley does not look very much like an honest mother and wife. This lady is unscrupulous and loses no opportunity to line her pockets. This is an epitome of a modern woman who needs neither a husband as protector nor a family. Such a woman will not wait until a wealthy man proposes to her. Rather, she will offer marriage to him. And if he rejects the offer, she will find another way to succeed. However, there are women among the characters of the play who stay within the traditional perceptions of their role in the society. Such are Gertrude and Mabel.

Wilde ridicules his contemporaries’ ostentatious righteousness. And though the play has a happy end, the author is well aware of the fact that the reality is the opposite to this comic outcome. The truly virtuous lose, but the treacherous move onward and upward by stealing, deceit, and blackmail.

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Wealth and social class are separate, though clearly related, issues in An Ideal Husband. Sir Robert Chiltern is dazzled by both, though it was the former that led him into the thrall of Baron Arnheim, who preached to him “the most marvelous of all gospels, the gospel of gold.” When he tells Lord Goring how the Baron used the promise of wealth to corrupt him, he adds that Lord Goring has never been poor himself and cannot know the temptation of wealth. When refusing to comply with Mrs. Cheveley’s demands that he assist her in the Argentine canal speculation, however, it is his social position that Sir Robert emphasizes along with his integrity:

You have lived so long abroad, Mrs. Cheveley, that you seem to be unable to realize that you are talking to an English gentleman.

To call oneself a gentleman is to make both a social and a moral claim. Mrs. Cheveley later mocks Sir Robert’s description of himself when talking to Lord Goring:

I can’t bear so upright a gentleman, so honorable an English gentleman, being so shamefully deceived...

So far as Mrs. Cheveley is concerned, Sir Robert lost his claim to be regarded as a gentleman when he made his fortune through dishonest means. He therefore lost both integrity and status by acquiring wealth. However, it is strongly suggested in the play that a higher social status than Sir Robert’s would grant one immunity from moral censure. Everyone believes Lord Goring is corrupt and immoral (though in fact he is not) but his social position as an aristocrat born and bred is unassailable. As Sir Robert points out, he can afford to have high moral standards. Sir Robert had to make a moral compromise (which ultimately remains unpunished) because he was not born with Lord Goring’s advantages.

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